Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the oldest operas still known and performed today and yet it translates to modern times better than most. It is inspired by Tacitus’ account of Nero, who repudiates his wife Ottavia and orders Seneca’s suicide in order to marry Poppea Sabina, wife of the nobleman, Ottone. Violating all rules of literary morality, the libretto, by Gian Francesco Busenello, celebrates the infamous couple’s crimes as the triumph of love. Monteverdi’s music vividly describes the strongly sexual nature of Nero and Poppea’s relationship, Nero’s folly, Ottone’s desperation and murderous scheming, Ottavia’s dignified grief in her humiliation. But ultimately, Nero and Poppea triumph, she is crowned empress of Rome, and they get one of the most beautiful and sensual love duets ever written, “Pur ti miro”.

Julie Fuchs (Poppea)
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Calixto Bieito’s production, revived from 2018, focuses on negative emotions. Poppea’s girlish excitement in her love affair with the emperor becomes pure scheming ambition, and even the tender, rapturous moments between her and Nero are depicted as rough sex. Ottone’s happiness in coming back to his beloved Poppea (“Eppur io torno qui”) is arrogant presumption, his desperation in finding her in Nero’s arms is rage and scorn. Ottavia’s grief quickly turns from dignified to furious, her desire for vengeance consuming her. Even the minor character of Valletto, when he mocks Seneca with light humour – calling him “cunning philosopher, illuminator of great ideas” – is here enraged, screaming, throwing things, one wonders why this young page is so angry with the old man. Perhaps the message is that everybody is a “bad guy”, everybody is motivated by selfishness and depravity. This interpretation does fit the story, but it deprived us of some fine singing, for example from Julie Fuchs (Poppea), who I would have loved to hear in some more lyrical passages.

L’incoronazione di Poppea in Zurich
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

The stage, designed by Rebecca Ringst, consists of an oval, lit catwalk with the orchestra in the middle. The Opernhaus had to rearrange the orchestra stalls to fit it in, so that some of the audience was sitting behind the orchestra. The backdrop was a giant video, and a great number of video screens were on the side of the catwalk (video design by Sarah Derendinger), showing either details of the scene, filmed live by a camerawoman, or side-scenes illustrating (often gruesome) details the plot – Nerone and Poppea in a bubble bath together, Seneca dying in a hot tub, Drusilla being savagely beaten by Nero’s guards. The video presence was overwhelming and often distracting, but the whole concept fits together with a sense of unity.

David Hansen (Nerone) and Julie Fuchs (Poppea)
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Ottavio Dantone conducted La Scintilla in a reading of the score which somewhat matched the dramatic production, more forceful than delicate. The overall result was extremely good, the sound was beautiful and stylish, with special mentions for Simon Linné (archlute), Rosario Conte (theorbo and guitar), and the fantastic cornettos. Julie Fuchs’ beautiful, silvery soprano was put at the service of a hyper-sexualized, power-hungry Poppea, with convincing results. She showed great chemistry with David Hansen (Nero) in the many sexual scenes. Hansen’s countertenor had some sharp edges, especially in the high register, and he seemed to have problems with his emission, which sounded quite unnatural, and his Italian pronunciation suffered. I honestly did not understand a single word he sang, which, in Monteverdi, is especially unfortunate, because the recitar cantando style requires clear diction and shaping of sentences. His interpretation of Nero as insane, and completely over the top, was credible and effective. Emily d’Angelo (Ottavia) was a nice surprise for me, a young singer with a very smooth, powerful mezzo, who left a strong impression. A name to follow.

Julie Fuchs (Poppea) and Delphine Galou (Ottone)
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Ottone was Delphine Galou, who was perhaps the most enjoyable singer of the evening. The natural elegance of her bronzed contralto shone through her overly rough portrayal of the betrayed Ottone, and her musical taste kept her away from exaggerated vocal antics. Miklós Sebestyén sang Seneca with a deep bass which exuded authority and charisma; his death scene was one of the few moving moments. Drusilla, Ottone’s new love interest, was a bubbly Deanna Breiwick, a beautiful soprano voice who has great stage presence.

Monteverdi’s masterpiece features a plethora of minor characters. I must mention Jake Arditti (Cupid) whose bright countertenor was beautiful and precise, and Thomas Erlank who sang the poet Lucano with a light but powerful tenor. Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was Arnalta, Poppea’s old nurse: the old woman sung by a tenor is a comical trope of this period. Gonzalez Toro did a very good job with a powerful voice and good interpretation. He was still presented as a man, which clashed with the words he was singing, but we were served the usual cheap trick of the surtitles showing different words, to “fix” the inconsistencies.